HMRC tax return fraud victim loses £7,300 after trying to claim for £420 rebate

Ian Speakman was as pleased as Punch when two days after completing his online self-assessment tax return to HMRC he received an email to say he was due a £420 rebate.

Tuesday, 3rd December 2019, 4:30 pm
Updated Tuesday, 3rd December 2019, 5:34 pm

It couldn’t have come at a better time, just a matter of weeks before Christmas.

But the elation soon turned to fury when he discovered 24 hours later he’d been the victim of a malicious scam, and thieves had raided his bank balance helping themselves to £7,320.68.

With returns to HMRC for the 2018/9 tax year due at the end of January, Ian was one of hundreds of thousands of people who were motivated to get their tax return in before the looming final deadline.

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‘I know I’m an idiot,’ Ian said, ‘but I just wanted to warn as many people as possible how easy it is to be taken in by rogues, especially at this time of year in the run up to Christmas.’

The 68-year-old upholsterer’s problem all started in early November. Although retired, he decided to supplement his state pension by taking on a number of occasional jobs to boost his modest retirement income.

As it put him over the taxman’s personal income allowances, he considered himself sufficiently computer savvy to file his annual tax return online and pay any tax due via the government gateway platform.

He said: ‘It was always a bit of a rigmarole getting onto them and navigating the personal security measures to file the return, but once you’d got the hang of it you had the confidence it was hack proof and secure.

‘So when a few days later an email popped into my inbox which was a spitting image of the HMRC page, I readily assumed it was all legit, and that’s when I got taken in big time.

‘The refund notification just lowered my guard. When I was asked to follow the online instructions to confirm my personal tax reference number and bank account details, it never crossed my mind I’d unwittingly just given the information to fraudsters.

‘The page was so convincing, and the ‘rebate’ appeared to be so credible.

‘I think if the email arrived earlier in the day, and my sceptical rational side had kicked in, I’d have spotted it transparently had the makings of a scam and I’d have queried it.

‘Belatedly, I now realise it’s one of the most silly and idiotic things I’ve ever done online.

‘I didn’t even think to take into account my HMRC tax calculation for the year didn’t indicate I was due a rebate, only the tax owed, so how stupid can you be?

‘When I got onto the bank a couple of days later to routinely check my balance I found to my horror my current account had been cleaned out of every last penny.’

When a furious Ian got in touch with Streetwise we immediately suspected that he’d been targeted by a hacker who’d planted a banking Trojan virus on his computer.

We agreed to help him raise the awareness of the dangers.

Banking Trojans are a form of malicious software which is designed to steal victims’ financial information and online banking credentials.

Victims are unknowingly forwarded to fake login pages that look just like the real thing.

In Ian’s case the hacker wasn’t able to get into his HMRC Government Gateway files when he made his tax return, but was alerted to precisely what he was doing on his computer.

It triggered the harvesting of his bank security information while he was caught off guard.

In common with other tax scams, the fraudster sent a message to Ian complete with the HMRC.gov.uk address supposedly telling him about the phantom refund.

Because his name and email address appeared in the mailing he saw no reason to doubt its authenticity and in an unguarded moment clicked on a link to forward the information.

We advised him to call in a computer technician to complete an in depth scan of his computer and up the security rating. It was no surprise that three different Trojans were found lurking on his computer, and removed.

We warned that scammers also use phone calls and even voicemails to transfer computer viruses that copy personal or even financial information.

HMRC told us email, text, or voicemail were never used for genuine refunds.

A spokesperson for the tax authority confirmed they were currently cracking down on hundreds of tax fraud rogues and shutting down ‘phishing’ sites reported to them every week.

As Ian had lost a considerable sum of money we also advised him to contact Action Fraud, the national police fraud reporting centre.

Despite taking a devastating hit in the bank balance Ian remained chastened but commendably determined to warn others how easy it was to fall into the same tax fraud trap.

This is the time of year when tax rogues are particularly active but with a little vigilance readers can easily avoid his experience.

• Never file tax returns or respond to any online HMRC email message unless it is through the government gateway official site.

• Genuine online contact with the taxman will always require a personal identity reference number and password, together with a two stage security process to obtain an unique one-off code to ensure secure access to your tax records.

• Never assume that anyone who phones or sends a text or email is who they say they are.

• Scammers often target older and more vulnerable people. If you have nagging doubts always contact the government department or firm separately using a phone number taken from official correspondence or website.

‘Now I know about deep scanning my computer for viruses,’ Ian said, ‘and never to be hasty or tempted to click on email links, I’m much more aware of the precautions I need to take and what to look out for.

‘I thought long and hard about showing myself up as a complete plonker, but as I’d been soundly taken to the cleaners I reasoned I’d nothing to lose in warning others.

‘I just hope it’s a salutary lesson and your readers learn from my devastating experience.’

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

Q. Both my sister and I have workplace pensions but a friend who is an accountant has pointed out that the return on my sister’s pension is far better than mine. Can I insist that my pension is transferred to another provider so I get a better return on my money?

L. D. (email)

A. While I understand the dilemma, the short answer is a resounding no.

Workplace pension provisions have been around since 2012 when the government first introduced them to ensure people started saving for their retirement.

Most employers were required to sign up workers under auto-enrolment rules, but they were left free to decide which companies to use to manage the scheme’s assets without reference to their employees.

A recent performance analysis of the major workplace pension providers revealed that many employees could end up missing out by thousands of pounds in their retirement simply because how their employer chose to invest their savings.

The top performing funds returned almost three times the return of the worst.

There’s nothing to stop you asking your employer to switch to a better performing company, but as they also contribute to your pension pot you are in no position to insist.

There are ways to opt out of workplace pension provisions and shop around for the best providers, but as you’d end up having to personally manage the investment I suggest you talk the matter through with your accountant friend before you go down that route.

Q. I took my car to a garage to skim the head and replace the head gasket. When I went to collect it and pay for the work, I noticed an unsightly impact crease in the nearside passenger door. They are denying they caused the damage. Where do I stand?

S.B. (email)

A. The garage has a legal obligation to take reasonable care of your car while it was in their workshop.

If you can prove the car was damaged while in their possession, under the law of bailment they are responsible for any necessary repairs.

You said the garage manger pointed out a notice in their office disclaiming all responsibility for loss or damage, but I suggest it’s likely to be unenforceable under the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977.